Even though the 58th annual Grammy awards started 30 minutes earlier, over 90 people filled the Watson Forum yesterday evening to hear from Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean instead.
Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, visited Greencastle on President’s Day to deliver a lecture titled “Beyond Ferguson: Reimagining Race and Social Justice in the United States.”
This lecture, as part of the Walker Horizon Lecture series during Black History Month, focused on the ills of the criminal justice system and the consequences of criminal disenfranchisement.
Associate Professor of Political Science Clarissa Peterson delivered Dr. Brown-Dean’s introduction.
“Each year I spend all year long waiting for Black History Month,” Peterson said. She explained that she always tries to find the most brilliant scholar to talk to our campus.
Peterson called Brown-Dean “an expert on political dynamics surrounding the criminal justice system.”
When Brown-Dean took to the podium and thanked Peterson, she also acknowledged President Casey for “doing something about these issues.”
“The fact that you are here over watching the Grammys is incredible to me,” she said.
2015 was a challenging year for Brown-Dean. She shared her story of visiting Selma, Ala. and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, civil rights demonstrators were attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas.
Brown-Dean showed a picture from her visit of a man extending his arm in the air. She explained that this man was crying heavily, so she asked if anything was wrong.
This man, a veteran, told her he had marched on Selma and he has scars from when dogs attacked him that day. Brown-Dean said that he wasn’t bitter, but that he was there “to pay tribute to those who couldn’t be there.”
“The blood of martyrs soaked into that pavement, and I left Selma inspired and encouraged,” Brown-Dean said.
She later summarized the story of Martese Johnson, an honors student at the University of Virginia from the south side of Chicago. A gruesome picture of his bloody face was projected on the screen. He was arrested on March 18, 2015 outside Trinity Irish Pub by liquor control agents on charges of public intoxication and obstruction of the peace. These charges would later be dropped and Johnson would file a $3 million lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Brown-Dean joined Johnson and others on a silent march to the UVA president’s house. She commented on Johnson freezing in fear upon seeing the police cars during the march.
During his arrest, Johnson reportedly said, “But I go to UVA! But I go to UVA!”
When he saw those police cars, “Martese realized that degrees don’t matter,” Brown-Dean said.
“I appreciated that she talked about respectability politics," said junior Sarah Fears. “Most students of color were always told that you need to respect police in a certain manner.”
“People think we live in a post-racial society and we don’t,” Fears added. “It was nice to see her address that issue, and I’m happy to see that there’s a diverse audience there to recognize that that’s what happens to black kids on campus and at a national level.”
“Ferguson is everywhere,” said Brown-Dean. “We are all one step away from becoming a hashtag.”
Brown-Dean buttressed her argument with extensive statistical analysis of the criminal justice system, proudly calling herself a numbers geek. Several slides of her lecture feature long-term graphs and cross-racial examinations. All of this data is studied to determine how much progress we have made as a country since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
The “Law and Order Approach” that Brown-Dean discussed began under the Nixon administration. Drugs became “public enemy number one" and this sentiment created a foundation for the United States to embrace stronger law enforcement. Brown-Dean highlighted the disproportionate impact this law enforcement has had on communities of color. This impact affects both men and women.
“The United States locks up more women than any other country in the world,” Brown-Dean said.
According to the lecture, African American women and Latinas make up the fastest-growing prison population. Brown-Dean raised the natural question about what happens to the children of these incarcerated mothers. The United States criminal justice system affects not only the people charged with the crimes, Brown-Dean urged, but also their families.
Felony disenfranchisement was another large topic of discussion. According to her lecture, five million Americans are permanently barred from voting because of felonies.
In many cases, people who have felony offenses are unable to do licensed work. They can’t work in hotels, restaurants or hospitals. The multitude of civil penalties attached to criminal convictions affect employment, public housing and other basic features of American life, Brown-Dean said.
The question “What MUST be done?” appeared on the screen. Brown-Dean shifted her discussion to our contemporary context.
“Here we are, on President’s Day, in the midst of one of the most contentious elections in history,” she said.
She spoke of an “addiction to punishment” and of mass incarceration on the state and local levels. Politicians cannot be relied upon to make these changes, she said.
She concluded her lecture around 8:30 p.m. and answered several questions, such as how to rectify the disproportionate incarceration rates between whites and blacks, what her thoughts are on marijuana legalization and how she gathers her information in a world where media unjustly frames important information.
Professor of Political Science Emmitt Riley appreciated the lecture.
“It revealed not only what the problems are with the criminal justice system, but we also have to understand why does it matter,” he said.
“Until we address the issue of laws at the local level being disproportionately enforced on people of color, we haven’t really got at the problem,” Riley added. “Within the context of the national election, we have to realize that change actually takes place on the local level.”
Senior and Student Body President Craig Cater also enjoyed the lecture and was surprised with the turnout.
“I think we need to have this kind of programming year round," Carter said. "People say this all the time, but black history is American history.”
Brown-Dean urged the audience to “commit to action.” When asked what advice she had for young people and new voters to make this commitment, she said, “I want people to think about what’s a priority to them. Learn as much as you can about that topic, choose a candidate that matches your views on those policies, but also realize that it has to be more than voting in a presidential election.”
“We’ve seen change happen in our country,” she said. “What is it going to take for people to say, ‘Enough. Let’s do something different?' That’s one of the things that makes this country so great, that we don’t have to wait on a president or wait on a mayor to do that. We have the power to do that. Now it’s about having the will to do it.”